Treatment for acute rotator cuff tears

The rotator cuff consists of four tendons that hold the bones of your shoulder joint together while allowing you a wide range of motion. A tear of one or more of these tendons can cause weakness and dysfunction of your arm, likely limiting your ability to work and perform other daily activities.

Although most rotator cuff tears occur gradually over time, acute tears can also happen due to sudden trauma. If you suffer an acute rotator cuff tear at work, you will probably feel intense and immediate pain. You may also feel a popping sensation in your shoulder as the tendon tears. Treatment for acute rotator cuff tears is either surgical or nonsurgical.

Surgical treatment

If your job requires overhead work with your arms, your doctor may recommend surgical treatment to repair the rotator cuff. A large or complex tear may require open surgery in which your doctor uses one large incision to access the rotator cuff so the repair can take place.

Arthroscopic rotator cuff repair is a more advanced method. It involves inserting microsurgical equipment through small incisions in the shoulder to access the tendon and make the repair. Advantages of arthroscopic repair include less chance of infection.

Nonsurgical treatment

Another term for nonsurgical treatment is conservative treatment. In either case, it can limit your activities during the recovery process, and there is a possibility that the tear could become bigger. However, conservative treatment avoids the risks associated with surgery, such as complications of anesthesia, infection or permanent stiffness. Nonsurgical rotator cuff repair treatment may include the following:

  • Steroid injection
  • Activity modification
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications
  • Rest

To regain strength and function of your arm, your doctor may also have you perform physical therapy exercises, either on your own or under the guidance of a physical therapist. This may occur as part of conservative treatment or as rehabilitation after surgery.

Doctors usually recommend nonsurgical treatment for a degenerative rotator cuff tear that occurs over time. However, your doctor may be more likely to recommend surgery for an acute tear that occurs due to trauma.


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